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From the Inside Out

Specialty Records Profiles Ride a Rocking Horse

By Published: November 9, 2006

This Profile includes solo tracks—where the hard sole of his shoe stomping out the beat on the recording studio floor forms the rhythm section—and the relatively unique sound of Hooker backed with a New Orleans tenor sax / boogie piano R&B combo. Hooker sounds more comfortable alone than in a group: Their juke-joint accompaniment to "I'm Mad, the only single Rupe released while Hooker was under contract, seems barely connected to Hooker's dark rumination about being romantically wronged (yet again). Eddie Burns' harmonica claws more effectively at Hooker's agony in "Burnin' Hell.

Hooker does his best work when he stands alone here, right from the opening "Boogie Chillun #2, his foot stomping out the beat as voice and acoustic guitar join together to throb and rampage through primal, hard as granite, blues. As he's "Goin' Down Highway 51, he accompanies his guitar solo with the one of the loneliest sounding, ghostly whistles you'll ever hear outside of an abandoned railway yard.

From the electrified side, Hooker rips open his cover of Percy Mayfield's "I Need Love So Bad with banshee electric guitar blues that scream from the deepest corners of a troubled, lonely soul (a brittle high voltage sound copped most famously by Jimmy Page for "Bring It On Home ).

Few artists were more perfectly named than "The Hook. Whether his guitar was acoustic or electric, John Lee Hooker's blues can truly hurt. Their sharply barbed knots dig so deep through your skin that you can't take them out, and as you twist and gasp to catch your breath, your struggle only drives the hook in more deeply. Colin Escott's Profile liner notes wonderfully describe this form as "one-chord stomps and modal, discursive blues ; its music gives you every reason to believe that if you've never experienced the blues of John Lee Hooker, you might not know the blues at all.

Percy Mayfield
Specialty Profiles
Specialty
2006

Scrambling as a young songwriter around late 1940s Los Angeles, Mayfield was befriended by Jimmy Witherspoon, who landed Mayfield a songwriter's gig at Supreme Records, the label for whom Witherspoon was then recording. Though Supreme went belly-up soon thereafter, the job gave Mayfield enough confidence to audition for Rupe, who signed him on the spot.

"I fell in love with sadness because there's more truth in it, Mayfield once said, and the biggest hit of his career proved him right. Precious few ballads, blues or otherwise, hit home with the unpretentious emotional honesty of his classic "Please Send Me Someone to Love, Mayfield's first Specialty release and his most enduring composition: A genuine blues prayer that Mayfield sings in a smooth deep baritone, filtered through the kind of thick yet soft Louisiana drawl that melts words like creamy country butter.

Studio bands for Mayfield were mostly led by bassist George "Red Callender, a Los Angeles blues veteran from previous work with Charlie Parker, Nat "King Cole, Erroll Garner and others. Blues such as "Lost Love (Baby Please) and "Strange Things Happening seem to reflect Callender's work with Cole, full of intricate piano and refined rhythmic accompaniment, very much like the sophisticated, urbane West Coast blues of pianist-vocalist Charles Brown—what might be called "cocktail blues.

Mayfield's music pulled down the shades to worry his troubles in darkness and solitude. "The River's Invitation leaves behind a hopelessly sad musical suicide note by recounting when the river spoke to him, "If you can't make it with your baby/ Come on home with me...

In 1952, Mayfield was nearly killed in an automobile accident. He spent nearly a year recovering from his injuries before some "comeback sessions yielded the darkly titled "Memory Pain, led not by New Orleans piano but by electric guitar blues and a groaned vocal that seems the chilling, distilled essence of tortured pain. He stopped recording for Specialty in 1954. Ray Charles signed him to his Tangerine Music Corporation and kept Mayfield's name in the spotlight by recording his song "Two Years of Torture on the breakout Genius of Ray Charles and of course Mayfield's "Hit the Road, Jack. Mayfield's Profile closes with the vocal-only demo of this huge Ray Charles hit.

Roy Milton
Specialty Profiles
Specialty
2006

Rupe originally signed drummer-vocalist Roy Milton and His Solid Senders to Juke Box Records then brought them along to Specialty, where they recorded from 1946 through '53.

Milton's sound embodied the pop nebula of its time: Milton buggy-whipped up- tempo dance rhythms and shouted simple verses, answered in call and response by blasts from the saxophone/trumpet horn section; his instrumentation and structure reached back to swing bands, yet his nimble ensembles rocked tempos and beats that were decidedly more modern than swing. "Roy had a compact six-piece band that was versatile and disciplined. It was an uncomplicated sound, yet had a full harmonic range, Rupe once recalled.



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